Hydrogen Is As Broadly Helpful As Hemp, And Will Be Used Simply As A lot

Hemp is a wonderful plant, as proponents of it will assure anyone who listens to it for more than 5 seconds. My local organic grocery store has hemp-based lotions, hemp-based breads, and hemp-based crackers. There is sure to be hemp toilet paper in there too. (It’s actually a great shop and I buy most of my groceries there, but nothing with hemp in it.)

Hemp is an incredibly versatile plant. It is an all-rounder. If I was stranded on a desert island, I would want cannabis seeds. You can use it to make ropes, clothing, food, and oils. It’s apparently good for skin irritation, inflammation, and rheumatoid arthritis. You can make sails out of this. You can make paper out of this. Hell, you can make kindling oil out of it.

As a very excited market report said, the world market share for industrial hemp was 5.6 billion US dollars in 2020. It’s a useful agricultural product, and it’s still used for a lot of things.

But here’s the thing: Our world is based on specialization, not generalization. If one country is really good at making cars and mediocre at making wine, but the neighboring country is making mediocre cars and great wine, then they are really better off doing what they are good at. The same applies to materials and plants.

Hemp rope is good. Almost no one uses it anymore because other plants make cheaper, better ropes, and man-made fibers make absurdly strong, much lighter ropes with properties like durability and variance in extensibility that make them great for various uses. Do you want to climb? Do not use hemp rope. Would you like to tie ships? Do not use hemp rope.

Hemp oil works as an edible oil. Avocado oil, walnut oil, and olive oil are all better along different vectors of better, but certainly taste and mouthfeel.

Hemp is ok too. Almost nobody uses it anymore because cotton is much better for making fabrics. It makes clothing that is much less like wearing a burlap sack, and it’s cheaper for that purpose. And that’s ahead of synthetics, which are moisture-wicking, breathable and stretchy.

Hemp sails have been amazing for a long time. Nobody uses hemp for sails these days because modern sail material is much better.

Hemp as a topical treatment for inflammation is fine too. But tubes of anti-inflammatory creams, which you can get over the counter at drugstores, are better. They are more convenient, more effective, cheaper and last longer in the tube. Hell, other natural remedies are way better than hemp.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

Hemp can do many things adequately, but most of the things it could do are better and cheaper done by something else that is less versatile.

What brings us to hydrogen. Currently, around 120 million tons of hydrogen are used annually for things that hydrogen is actually good for. Everything is made from fossil fuels with no concern for pollution and CO2 emissions, so it’s cheap. According to S&P Platts’ hydrogen spot price index, a kilogram of pure hydrogen costs $ 1.25 to $ 2.00 in the US today. As I’ve written extensively before, much of it is used for things that are good for at this price point, including removing the sulfur from fossil fuels – a market that has to go – and making fertilizer – another market that he has to go. Why do you have to go? Climate change. Both contribute massively to climate change and must therefore be remedied and not just replaced with low-carbon hydrogen. We have to stop converting crude oil into fossil fuels, and we have to stop putting a lot of fertilizer in fields where it turns into 6x as much CO2e as its mass into nitrous oxide, a major greenhouse gas in its own right.

But we cannot produce hydrogen that cheaply if we want to avoid massive pollution and the effects of global warming. It’s just a reality. The price of hydrogen will rise. Whether we’re pushing carbon capture and sequestration – incredibly wasteful, silly, and impracticable – or running renewable electricity through sophisticated electrolysers, it’s going to be more expensive than gray or black hydrogen. Even at US $ 20 / MWh – my forecast stable final price for electricity in decades after the switch to US dollars in 2021 – and a 90 percent electrolyser utilization, the energy costs per Lazards hydrogen LCOE alone are well above the current spot price of 2 .56 US dollars to 2.96 US dollars.

The laws of thermodynamics will not allow this to be much cheaper. We sure take 10% of that, maybe 20%, and that’s excellent, but we’re not going to cut it in half.

Liebreich’s clean hydrogen conductors with comments on competing technologies, with permission from Michael Liebreich.

As I found out, this top line and its “no real alternatives” are a little negligible in that three of these uses – fertilizers, hydrocracking and desulphurisation – demand will decline, not stay, and certainly not grow in the coming decades. And to be very clear, the top line is the only place where hydrogen is used in any amount today. Everything else is a planned new use of hydrogen.

Just like all of these planned uses of hemp outside of weird niche enthusiast consumer groups.

For anything that has competitive electricity / battery technology, guess what. The use of electricity directly or via batteries is almost always more effective, more efficient and cheaper than the use of hydrogen.

Just like all the things we use instead of hemp today.

Hydrogen can be burned for heat. But we don’t do that today and in the future, because with electricity it is easier to get heat directly from electricity in exactly the amount and in the places that we need. (Pro tip: Electricity is actually an amazingly effective, efficient, and cheap jack-of-all-trades. Usually, if it can be used at all, it’s the best bet. The only reason we don’t use it for more things is because we are allowed to we treat our atmosphere like an open sewer, fossil fuels are cheaper.)

Hydrogen can be stored for long-term storage. But we don’t do that now and in the future because pumped storage and batteries are cheaper and better.

Hydrogen can be used as a fuel for transport. But we don’t do that today, and we won’t do that in the future either, because grid-connected and battery-powered vehicles are absurdly more useful, until we get into massive scales that can’t be grid-connected, and still no hydrogen because biofuels that use hydrogen and carbon Pre-pack from sunlight, are cheaper and more effective.

Like natural gas today, hydrogen can be used for heating and cooking in the home. But we are not doing that today and will not do that in the future either, because electricity is already available in every household, heat pumps are much better and safer than the combination of gas stoves and air conditioning systems that displace them, we already have highly efficient, cheap and very effective electrical appliances, and we don’t have hydrogen appliances.

Hydrogen can be used for steel. We don’t do that today, but we probably will do a lot more in the future. But there, too, the direct reduction of iron ore with electricity is being researched in order to electrify this process, just as we have electrified the production of aluminum. And we have electric steel minimills to process the scrap metal from all fossil fuel infrastructure and equipment that is about to be shut down. Steel is not a guaranteed growth market for hydrogen, just a likely one.

Hydrogen can be used for methanol. However, a useful result of this comparison of hemp with hydrogen is that Liebreich has pointed out that biomass / biogas can also be used for this purpose and if hydrogen is twice as expensive alternatives are quickly being researched and commercialized. As a result, my forecast of flat methanol hydrogen demand is actually optimistic. If I release v2.0 of the outlook for hydrogen demand, it will go down and the net hydrogen demand will continue to decrease.

All the people who shout from the rooftops about the wonders of hydrogen are just as wrong as all the people who scream about the wonders of hemp, and for the same reasons. There are better and cheaper alternatives. So why are we paying attention to the people yelling about hydrogen?

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